Let’s take a few minutes this dreary winter Wednesday to remind ourselves that people aren’t always the worst. In a neat little animated video published yesterday by the University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Dacher Keltner explains that we were essentially built to be nice. Keltner explains his own work using brain imaging technology, in which he’s shown images of human suffering to people in the lab:
And what we found in the brain is a very old part of the brain, the periaqueductal gray, which is common to mammals when they take care of things, lights up when you feel compassion. And that tells us that compassion is very old in the nervous system, as Darwin speculated.
His research has also shown that the vagus nerve — the nervous system’s longest grouping of nerves, stretching from the brain to the abdomen — also shows activity when we feel compassion. (Science of Us contributor Maia Szalavitz also co-wrote a book about human empathy, if you’re hungry for more on the subject.) Taken together, research by Keltner and others suggests that we are biologically set up to care about other people. Being nice is human nature.